FEARLESS (1993) ** 3/4
Did that song from Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" lurk in the mind of Rafael Yglesias when he wrote the novel "Fearless" and later the movie's script (his first)?
Max Klein (Jeff Bridges), the protagonist (and literally, hero) of Yglesias, undergoes a sea-change in the air. In a plane that is about to crash, Max who normally suffers from fear of flying, suddenly thinks of his death, becomes strangely detached, and in a state of quasi-Nirvana helps a young boy.
This is shown later in the film, as one of its flashbacks. "Fearless" actually begins with the wrecked plane on the ground, rescue operations and Max calmly saving a number of passengers. One of the desperate victims is Carla (Rosie Perez) whose baby was killed.
Mission accomplished, Max walks away and rents a car. Experiencing euphoria he finds joie de vivre in the machine, the road, the flamenco music on the radio, the fresh air.
He stops by the house of a friend not seen for 20 years. He takes her to a pancake restaurant, bites with rapture and impunity into strawberries, a fruit deadly to his allergies but now a blissful symbol of Max's rebirth. .
The tone shifts to shrewd irony when the vanished Max is tracked down by the F.B.I. A lady from the airline, using euphemisms that avoid the C-word ("crash") nervously offers Max a train ticket to his home in San Francisco. But the smiling man wants to fly back, first class.
Up to this point all the sequences are brilliantly conceived and conducted. But when Max "The Good Samaritan" returns to his city, the tone becomes increasingly solemn and soulful. Max, having in his mind gone through death, has acquired a sense of immortality and invulnerability. As in Shakespeare's song he fears nothing any more. But unlike it, he has not come to dust.
As played by Jeff Bridges, Max is both a strong physical presence and someone who isn't there. In a sort of trance that new to the movies, he is weirdly detached from his wife Laura (Isabella Rossellini), his son and from life as he, Max, once knew it. Yet now he knows "the taste, the joy, the feeling of life."
Is he crazy? Is he like one of those medieval "illuminati"? Is he a holy innocent? Is he in a state of grace?
Max will pay no heed to the airline psychiatrist (the oddly cast John Turturro) who wants to help him get well, or to an ambulance-chasing lawyer (the amusing Tom Hulce) who wants to help him get rich through lawsuits. Yet when three months later Turturro tries novel therapy by bringing together Max and near-catatonic Carla, it works.
Charismatic Max slowly overcomes Carla's resistance to consolation. There is powerful love between this overly disparate duo, he a chic architect, she lower-class with a vengeance. But this love is not as in "to fall in love" --which is how Laura interprets it. It is love in an ineffable, mystical sense.
There's a great deal more, which I will not attempt to describe. And which, for me, does not live up to the great expectations of the start, or to the hope that director Peter Weir would recapture the magic, mystery and mysticism of his early Australian films "Picnic At Hanging Rock" and "The Last Wave."
What bothers me in "Fearless" is that rather than form following function, too often form seems to mold function, By form I mean the performances and the visuals, and by function, the meaning of Bridges's peculiar behavior. This strategy leads to conceits, preciosity and mannerisms. It leads to some silliness which we are supposed to read as "existential" depth, as in the Christmas shopping sequence and later the speeding Volvo. It also leads to our getting nudged by an oversupply of symbols.
Max's being an architect is a cliche for building and rebuilding anything from souls to societies. The symbol can be used delicately (Eiji Okada in "Hiroshima, Mon Amour") or heavily (Gary Cooper in the pretentious "The Fountainhead"). The very name Max Klein pointedly combines "maximum" and "small" ("klein" in German). Max comes out of the wreck unscathed save for a Christ-on-the-Cross wound, which matches some Christ-like declarations. The name-tag on the waitress who serves him strawberries says "Faith." Laura teaches ballet to children, welcomes visiting Turturro as the kids dance around "flying." And on and on.
One twist of the movie is to present us with the sad and familiar survivor's guilt (Carla) and its counterforce, survivor's non-guilt (Max). But this is murkily developed, as is the oversimplified rapport between Carla and Max.
Rosie Perez also grates while her speech is often incomprehensible . As for Max's state of grace, it cannot hold a candle to the classic "A Condemned Man Escaped" the utterly simple gem by "transcendental" Catholic director Robert Bresson, a film that ends with an immensely moving "All is Grace."
"Fearless" stays too much on the same level. There are striking parts in it, but the whole did not involve me emotionally or intellectually. The film works well pictorially. It has the best shot and edited plane crash since 1992's "Hero," a movie which curiously enough, used another Good Samaritan, but to satirical ends. Even more impressive, because it is so subtle, is the image of Max on a roof-terrace photographed like an Edward Hopper painting.